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Church statements could be overrated

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Whenever a moral issue swims into public view, people will call for church leaders to make a statement about it. The call should be weighed carefully – such statements have their place but are not normally all that helpful.

The reason is that church statements are written to achieve broader goals - to help form a lively and faithful church community and to ensure that the wider public is properly informed about Christian faith and its implications for issues facing the nation.

Statements by church leaders are only one of many strategies, and a relatively minor one, to shape a faithful church community. The most effective are strategies are more simple –reading the Gospel, for example, gathering to pray, sermons and unstructured conversations about faith and how to live it.

Leaders of churches, of course, have an important place in shaping the community. They are generally most effective when they speak modestly with church groups to encourage faithfulness and generosity. Pastoral letters to the whole local church also have a long tradition and can be effective in encouraging faith. Those that try to clarify and define Christian faith are also sometimes appropriate. They are also difficult. To change ways of thinking you normally need to touch hearts. Doctrinal statements don’t easily touch hearts. But it they fail to do so they can alienate minds as readily as they persuade them.

When people press for church leaders to speak, though, it is generally to address a public audience, through press releases or in articles or interviews. Sometimes the right words and gestures can be extraordinarily helpful, especially when they represent the faith of their community in response to events that affect the nation. Events like the Twin Towers, the Tsunami or the killings at Port Arthur allow church leaders to speak simply out of the faith of their church. If they can encourage people by standing with them and helping them find good words to express the inarticulate movements of their hearts, they will speak more effectively than if they stand above people and lecture to them.

But those who urge church leaders to speak out usually want them to make clear to the broader public what Christians believe and what moral positions they take, in response to issues of current interest, such as the case of Dr. Haneef, prospective abortion legislation and so on. In these cases, too, the need for statements needs to be assessed against their goals. The most important of these is that the attitude of the churches should be understood and persuasively commended to the general public.

That happens best when Christian attitudes and beliefs are evident in the life of the church communities. The Christian attitude to asylum seekers and its incompatibility with government policy, for example, are evident in the large numbers of committed Christians who care for asylum seekers and speak on their behalf. The most helpful contribution of church leaders here is to encourage the generosity and commitment of their communities. Public statements will simply own what is being done in the churches and affirm its grounding in Christian faith. They are often best made by spokesmen for the church committees responsible for responding to the issues.

The reason why statements by church leaders should be only an ancillary strategy is that they are two-edged. When groups make statements about a wide variety of issues, we normally stop treating what they say very seriously. We assume that they cannot have on so many issues the depth of expertise and commitment that might give authority to what they say. Within organisations, too, such statements can be taken as a goal rather than a strategy. They then do not support community commitment and organisation but substitute for it.

Statements by church leaders can be an important strategy where matters of grave moral concern are of little interest to church communities. I believe that the potential for serious disrespect to human dignity make the laws against terrorism one of these areas. There is little awareness in churches of their dangers. Statements by Church leaders can be significant in awakening awareness.

Statements of this kind, however, can have costs both for churches and their leaders. These have been evident in some of the bravest church statements – by German church leaders against Hitler’s policies and by South African leaders against apartheid. The Gospel can take both the churches and their leaders on to perilous ground. That is where words count.



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Existing comments

You lost me. Morals are intrinsically "of interest" to church communities. One cannot be authentically Christian and at the same time indifferent to the grave moral concerns of our age.

Casey Collins | 05 September 2007  

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